In 2004, I found myself struggling with crippling depression. After 8 months of a long distance romance, I had moved across country to live with my now husband in San Diego, California. The time I’d spent apart from Tod had been hard, but now, separated from my family and friends by some 1,200 miles for the first time in my life, I felt homesick and empty. I learned what many who suffer with depression learn: it wasn’t just “being sad.”
There were ups and there were downs. But the big changes had affected me in profound ways and ultimately, overall, I felt “lost.”
Being lost in the real world is scary, especially when we’re in unfamiliar surroundings, or when we’re not exactly sure where we’re headed. Depression, to me, felt very similar. I suffered with anxiety, and nearly constant fears and doubts. My self-esteem was low.
In January 2005, Time Magazine’s cover story was “The Science of Happiness” and I devoured every word. Inside, it talked about the neurology of happiness, and just how adaptable our monkey brains are. Neurologists had done fMRI scans (you know, the brain scan machine that Dr. House always uses?) of Tibetan monks and shown how meditation and positive thinking had impacted their brains in literal ways.
It took me a solid six months after reading that article to make what I consider the first step in my path towards happiness. It was July 4, one of the busiest days of the hectic Summer Season (I was working at Sea World as a caricature artist at the time) and I’m certain that I was stressed out. I was homesick as ever, missing a big annual family get-together on that day. Honestly, I don’t remember much of the specifics, but I know that at some point that day, I couldn’t take it anymore. I’d finally reached my breaking point, and I declared my own personal Independence Day.
I understood that my depression wasn’t my fault, but on Independence Day, I decided it wasn’t a part of me, either. Instead of thinking of it as something “wrong” with me, I decided to look at it as though it were a parasite. It was not a part of me, and it couldn’t survive without feeding off of me. I knew I could beat it.
The next step was to change my language. Instead of saying, “I am depressed.” I began to say, “This depression is really affecting me today.” It was a small change, but its impact on me was more than noticeable. I was changing my mindset, and even though I didn’t have an fMRI machine, I knew I was changing the physical pathways within my brain, as well.
There was a lot more work to be done on my road to Happiness, and I don’t mean to oversimplify a complicated subject. It’s been seven years and I still struggle with the occasional setback. But I no longer feel lost.
The “power of positive thinking” is a grossly overused idea and perhaps it doesn’t get the scientific backup that it deserves. But I think it’s presented in the wrong way. Positive Thinking should not be thought of as a bandage we apply to a wound, but as an exercise routine that we repeat on a regular basis to keep mentally fit. The same way that we “train” to become better athletes, we can train to become happier people.
I’d like to pass on a simple mantra that I’ve learned. I touched upon it in my post about Body Image on Tuesday, and it’s the same idea behind my own first step in my personal journey.
“I am not this.”
When I feel sad, I am not my sadness. When I feel angry, I am not my anger.
“I am not this.”
A mantra is a simple phrase or idea that we can say, over and over if needed, to remind ourselves of a positive message. For me, that meant reminding myself that I was the host, not the parasite. I was the victim of depression, but it wasn’t a part of me. Separating myself from my depression was the single biggest step in overcoming it.
Close your eyes and take deep, calming breaths and gently but firmly remind yourself that you are bigger than your problems. Repeat this, or your own positive mantra over and over. Repeat it night and day. Repeat it for comfort when you’re feeling weak, and repeat it again in triumph when you feel strong. Write it. Say it over and over in your head. Whisper it to yourself. Say it with conviction in the shower. Say it to yourself in the mirror. Say it over and over until you believe it.
You will believe it, and the neuron pathways in your brain will have changed, too. You can make yourself stronger. It will take time and it will require hard work, just like an Olympic Athlete who trains for years.
It will be worth it.